It’s a dark and foggy night. The carriage ferrying King Harimansingh on a royal procession (conveniently) breaks down near the Kali Pahadi, the lair of the demonic Samri. While the king sets out to look for his daughter, who has (also conveniently) gone missing, the maniacal Samri attacks his men and drinks their blood, his eyes gleaming red with each fresh kill. He’s caught and put on trial for his crimes (because the sultanate of Bijapur believes in due process, even for flesh-eating demons.) His head’s cut off, but not before he vows to return. He does.
There’s a lot going on in Purana Mandir (1984), but it’s Samri who stands out, as his cult following will attest to. Ajay Agarwal, the actor playing him, would go on to star in two more Ramsay Brothers‘ films, Saamri (1985) and Bandh Darwaza (1990), playing characters described as “andheron ka shahenshah” and “shaitan”.
Between 1984 and 1990, Agarwal became the face of horror, an achievement he attributes to having a face for horror. “I developed this medical problem, it’s called a pituitary gland tumour. Because of that, my face distorted and I became a different man. That made my face scary. I’d walk on the road and people would get scared,” says the Dehradun-born Agarwal. His six-and-a-half-foot-tall presence looms so large over the Ramsay films, it’s surprising to discover on rewatch that he doesn’t have many dialogues in either Bandh Darwaza or Purana Mandir. In Saamri, he’s killed within the first 12 minutes. That he’s still so memorable is tied to just how effectively he conjured dread with just his gait, facial expressions and an arsenal of grunts and growls.
More recently, he made an appearance in Kings Of Horror, a short documentary exploring the Ramsay universe, directed by Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh.
“I’m not a ‘valid’ actor from FTII or something. But I always wanted to act,” says the 69-year-old over the phone from Himachal Pradesh, where he’s spending the month. He got his start when a friend who knew of his fancy for acting suggested he go meet the Ramsays at their Grant Road office. He’d just moved to Mumbai to work as a civil engineer after graduating from Thomason College of Civil Engineering (now IIT-Rourkee) and his only acting experience until then had been local productions of the Ramleela.
The Ramsays, who had completed 70% of Purana Mandir by then, were looking for someone with whom they could shoot the horror portions. “Previously, they would get someone and just apply makeup to make them scary but this time they wanted to leave a lasting impression,” he says.
Agarwal got the job, spending eight hours in the makeup chair every day transforming into devil-worshipper Samri. Much of that time was spent putting on a shaggy brown wig, he says. “Now, it would take half an hour. These old makeup men would take eight hours. So much gum and paste.” While the directors usually urged their cast to dress in their own clothes for the films, the outlandish nature of Agarwal’s characters meant that they had to have costumes made. “Those were better than my clothes,” he laughs.
Agarwal spent around 30 days shooting at the Murud-Janjira Fort in Raigad, where the demon’s underground lair had been recreated. Some of his fondest memories of filming outdoors are the Ramsay brothers shouting, ‘Jaldi! Jaldi!’ to keep things running smoothly. Working on low-budget productions meant Agarwal wasn’t paid much, around Rs1,000 a movie. “They kept their budgets low, these were family productions. What they gave you was respect. Sometimes, you don’t care for the money,” he says.
The brothers’ ingenuity extended to certain creatively staged sequences conceptualised by cameraman Gangu Ramsay. For a scene in which Agarwal, playing the vampire Nevla in Bandh Darwaza, picks up a man by the neck, the actor was made to stand on a seesaw-type platform that lifted when a crew member put weight on the opposite end. The platform was fitted with wheels and pulled across set to achieve the effect of Nevla striding across the room, still grasping the man by the neck. A scene in which Nevla flies through the air and smashes through the windshield of a car was the result of “camera tricks,” says Agarwal, though he’s not sure what those entail. “I’m a 100kg man. I can’t fly. They didn’t have the budget for a crane. It’s all Gangu’s camera tricks,” he says. If viewers in the 80s and 90s believed Agarwal was over 7 feet tall, it’s all thanks to Gangu’s low-angle shots, which made the actor look even more menacing.
Agarwal reunited with the Ramsay brothers for Zee Horror Show, starring in around 20 of the show’s 300-plus episodes. It’s a series he credits with extending his onscreen longevity. “I reached every house. It was this raunchy kind of horror you didn’t want your kids to watch but when it aired, they’d watch too from behind the wall. The Ramsays worked as hard on this as they did on their films. It was very effective,” he says, making a low, rumbling, ‘boooo’ sound to illustrate.
Now, Agarwal lives in Mumbai with his wife. His son and daughter are both in the US. Years on, he has no photographs or record of his time spent with the Ramsays. He hasn’t rewatched any of his films with them since their release either. “I’m very poor at keeping records. I didn’t do it for the money. It was the company. I enjoyed it. We were all friends,” he says.